Aman Sveti Stefan hotel. Picture / Amanda Linnell.

Discovering Paradise in Montenegro

Amanda Linnell takes Jaguar’s first-ever SUV for a test drive — in one of the world’s most spectacular destinations

I’m having a moment. I think it’s Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash or is it I Am Love? Or is it Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr Ripley? Or maybe it’s just my own moment? A woman of a certain age, alone, wandering through the cobbled lanes of an old European seaside town. (Although I’m not dressed head-to-toe in Dior, alas.)

The ocean crashes against the stone walls, as it has for centuries. Waiters stand outside empty cafes. I feel empowered, free and content in my solitude. Happy to dine alone in the hotel restaurant. To chat to the store owners, order a coffee and sit in the church square watching the local children kick a football as the bells chime. To wander past the luxury yachts moored and waiting patiently for their owners, listen to a choir — their songs pouring out of a window high above and echoing around the lanes of the old town.

To read the menus of the seafood restaurants that line the beach and soak up the emptiness of a place that in a few months will be seething with tourists. This is the town of Badva in Montenegro — the small Balkan country, wedged between Croatia and Albania, that seduced me the minute I landed.

The international airport in the capital city of Podgorica is similar in size to the Napier airport. My taxi driver, with his gold mirror-lensed aviators, and pimped-out black sedan, speaks no English but with the radio pumping Eastern European pop music he is happy to speed through the countryside with ease, past beautiful lakes, around the ever-present mountains, along winding roads, hugging the curves like an old hand, up, over and down to the glistening Adriatic coast.

The Jaguar F-PACE SUV in Montenegro. Picture / Amanda Linnell.

I am here to test drive the new Jaguar F-PACE SUV — and I can’t wait. If it can handle the roads like my taxi ride, this is going to be fun. These roads were made for driving.

The countryside is sprinkled with old farm houses on smallholdings and there are no signs of obvious wealth. This is saved for the coastline which, with its luxury hotels, has over recent years served as a playground for wealthy Russians and Serbs — and those smart enough to have discovered it.

For now, however, all is quiet and I sit in the sunshine on my balcony watching the beach: old couples at cafes, pale young couples in swimsuits catching the first rays of summer, parents pushing babies around. Everyone is taking photos. iPhones have taken over the world.

I plot how we could spend a summer here, living in one of the terracotta-roofed houses among the olive groves. Living off fresh fish, salads of cucumber, tomato and domaci sir — the local homemade cheese — and swimming in the blue waters. This is the French Riviera without the glitz, the glamour and the prices.

Two days later and I’m relaxed, inspired, raring to go. I’m waiting at the hotel door when a Jaguar representative swoops up in a stylish XF to take me up the coast to begin my official duties. A local Montengrin, he is part of the military-sized operation that Jaguar has set up for the global launch of its first-ever SUV.

We pull of the main road and weave down to the Aman Sveti Stefan — once a medieval village and now one of the world’s most prestigious hotels, sitting on a tiny private island, accessible only by foot via a narrow causeway. Ancient stone cottages have been transformed into 41 luxurious suites that will cost over £1000 a night. Mine sits on the cliff edge, with wooden windows that open on to the rocks and ocean; another set faces the pretty village that hugs the hills on the mainland.

Amanda Linnell stayed at the Aman Sveti Stefan, a medieval village transformed into a luxury hotel. Picture / Amanda Linnell.

This will be home for the next few days, and I find a wonderful serenity walking the warren of lanes with names such as Poetry, Rosemary, Church Fig and Oleander; discovering a shady piazza, the pools that hang by the cliff’s edge, the old church and the roof-top restaurant. Olive trees provide shade by day and lanterns light the way by night. The air is fresh and fragrant.

For over a month, non-stop rotations of journalists from around the world are being flown in, to stay at the Aman and to experience the F-PACE first-hand.

On our first evening we gather at dusk to drink Champagne around a spotlit and sparkling F-PACE 380hp sport in metallic blue. This is the top-rung version of the F-PACEs, which start with the Prestige followed by the luxury-oriented Portfolio, and then the sporty R-Sport. We will try them all over the next few days.

A rather handsome man steps up to speak. It is British male supermodel David Gandy. A friend of the brand, he is also here to review the F-PACE for Vanity Fair. An avid car fan, who collects classic cars, he tells me later at dinner how impressed he is with the F-PACE. “It drives like a sports car, has more interior space and praticality than anything else in its class. The more I’ve got to see it, it is stunning. Jag doesn’t seem to have had to compromise. It’s a very British brand that I like to support.

“Cars are definitely a status and image thing,” he agrees when I ask him what the F-PACE would say about its driver. “I think it doesn’t say too much, which is what I like. It’s very cool and understated. There are a lot of other brands that say a lot and that’s why people buy them.”

The Jaguar F-PACE SUV turned heads even amid the stunning scenery of Montenegro. Picture / Supplied.

Later that night he posts on Instagram: Reviewing the new jag #FPACE in Montenegro for @vanityfairuk. quick conclusion: One of best cars jaguar have ever built? definitely….. One of the best cars on the road at the moment? almost certainly. it’s virtually faultless. @jaguar

The next morning I am behind the wheel of the SUV. Setting the course on the sat nav, telling myself to keep right, keep right ... we hit the open road. Within minutes, it all falls into place. Comfortable, responsive, I feel at ease with the car and put my foot down.

Warning. Montengrins like to hug the centre line, your side of the centre line that is. Fortunately, one of the many nifty systems this car comes with is the ability to detect impending head-on crashes and prevent them. We leave the smooth highways behind and head up into the mountains, weaving along kilometres of single-lane country roads. There’s much backing up to let the speedy — and surprised — locals through. We wave to farmers, slow down for wandering cows, and stop to marvel at the views and chat to a family having a drink at a roadside stall.

Our stylish cavalcade glides through Cetinje, the old capital — where young mums and smoking youths in tracksuits walk the streets — and head into Lovcen National Park with its pretty dappled forests.

Before a picnic lunch we are set the task of taking the SUV off-road. As it is spring there is no snow on the ski slopes, just gnarly rocks. The gradient might not be as steep as a black run, but it feels like it as I swipe and change the car’s mode, set the speed and then leave the car to, literally, drive itself.

It goes against everything I know — and I can only imagine this is what driverless cars will feel like. All I have to do is steer. I keep my foot off the accelerator and, even harder, my foot off the brake on the way down. Giving up control isn’t easy but the F-PACE navigates it all with ease.

Amanda Linnell takes Jaguar’s SUV for a test drive around the countryside. Picture / Amanda Linnell.

After lunch in the sunshine outside an alpine cabin, we set our path for the Bay of Kotor, a beautiful harbour that feels like a fiord and is popular in summer with super-yachts and holidaymakers who visit the pretty coastal churches and fortified towns that hug the coast.

To get there, however, we must navigate the 26 hairpin bends (all numbered) on what is described as the 10th most dangerous road in the world. There’s little time to admire the incredible views before each turn, and when we finally make it to the bottom there is a sense of joy as we open up the car again.

The afternoon is spent kayaking out to an ancient church, Our Lady of the Rocks, on a man-made island, past an ancient Franciscan monastery on its own isolated islet planted with cypress trees. Back on the mainland, we join locals at a waterside cafe before heading home.

That night, over a candle-lit dinner on the roof-top terrace looking back to the lights of the mainland, our group regales the magic of the day, the car, and the location. Jaguar’s delightfully passionate director of design, Ian Callum, describes his latest baby as “an SUV with the soul of a sports car”.

As the wine flows he continues to wax lyrical about the shape and sensual lines, inspired by the original F-Type. This is the first time Jaguar has invited lifestyle journalists to a car launch; the makers now understand how much this SUV will appeal to women. Not only is it stylish, in an elegant and understated way, it is safe and been designed to make life easy.

Aman Sveti Stefan hotel. Picture / Amanda Linnell.

You can preheat the car from the house before you get into it on a cold winter’s morning, and cool it down in summer. Your phone will sync with the car’s navigation system when you type in your location from your desk or the house and, when you’re on the road, will send your chosen contacts updates on how far away you are.

The WiFi will connect to up to eight devices at a time; there’s an activity key you can wear on your wrist so you can to go for a run or pop to the supermarket without worrying about losing it. The boot is more than generous, as is the space in the back seats.

Though it is an SUV it’s not overly huge, which makes it all the more appealing for negotiating the back streets of Ponsonby. The list of features goes on and on ... As does the party. It’s a sorry group the next morning when it’s time to leave this slice of paradise. The sore head is just part of it. Saying goodbye to this unique part of the world is even harder.

• Amanda Linnell visited Montenegro as a guest of Jaguar. To find out more info, visit jaguar.co.nz

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